By Leigh Armstrong
Residents and tourists looking to use free Wi-Fi at the Skagway Public Library June 11-13 found no signal due to a suspension from Alaska Power & Telephone in response to an alleged illegal download.
It was the library’s second internet suspension from AP&T this season. Library staff is drafting information for AP&T to hopefully prevent any further shutdowns.
The library is the only establishment that offers free Wi-Fi in Skagway. Other sources of internet for residents and visitors require either buying a Wi-Fi pass through AP&T, making a purchase at a business with Wi-Fi or buying time at an internet shop.
AP&T suspended the library’s internet due to a violation of the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. AP&T alerted the library of the suspension in advance, reporting that the library was in violation of DMCA due to illegal sharing of media.
The library’s Wi-Fi is an open network with no password required. Anyone with an internet-capable device will be able to get on to the network as soon as they get within range and can even sit outside the building and stay connected.
Library director Julene Brown said there were violation notifications last summer too.
The library is looking to show AP&T that it is protected from suspensions under the online copyright infringement liability limitation provision of the DMCA. The so-called “safe harbor” provision protects an online service provider from liability if there is illegal activity by a user on the network without the provider’s guidance, according to the American Library Association. Since the library acts as a neutral location and is essentially a passthrough to the end user, Brown said the library should be covered under the provision.
Brown is working with the state library to draft a letter to AP&T before any other suspensions of service happen. With the first suspension lasting a day and the second lasting three days, Brown is concerned that a third suspension could be even longer, or permanent, as AP&T holds the option to terminate an account for violations in its copyright compliance policy.
Bryant Smith, director of broadband sales and quality at AP&T, said he is unfamiliar with any language that would keep the library from being held accountable. He said AP&T’s policy is meant to enforce the DMCA.
“Our policy doesn’t differentiate between home, business, educational institutions or medical institutions,” Smith said. “We don’t care what you do online, but you can’t break the law.”
AP&T’s procedure asks that copyright owners or enforcement agents contact AP&T with the date, time and IP address (a unique Internet address for each computer) of each alleged violation. From there, AP&T can verify the time and IP address with its list of customers. If a customer goes beyond a set number of violation notifications, the customer will receive a suspension of service. AP&T would not disclose the number of violations or the length of suspensions it has issued in Skagway. The library has received three notices of copyright violation from AP&T in 2019, with the most recent on June 9.
While Smith didn’t know if the library was free from liability under the safe-harbor provision, he said the company’s policy also is intended to protect AP&T. “In order to protect ourselves under safe harbor, we have to consistently apply a policy,” Smith said. “We have to make sure (illegal downloading) stops consistently.”
Under AP&T policy, customers who receive a notice of suspension can provide evidence that they are not at fault for the download. But the library does not keep records of internet activity on its premises, making it hard to challenge a suspension.
“We don’t track or keep any of the data. That’s part of how we stay neutral,” Brown said, adding that she believes the neutrality protects the library from liability for user downloads. Filters to block access to certain sites or functions could be an answer longer term, but “filtering is censoring,” Brown said.
A federal program, E-rate, subsidizes Internet costs for schools and libraries, but requires content and download filters. The Skagway library does not participate in E-rate. Brown said the library used E-rate in the past, but chose not to continue after determining that the staffing cost of dealing with individuals’ requests to reach legitimate sites blocked by filters exceeded the federal funds.
Filters would block “torrents,” which are commonly used to illegally download media. Torrents are a type of file that can be used to download another file in pieces and are commonly used to illegally obtain movies and music.
While torrents have become well-known due their use in illegal downloading sites, there’s nothing inherently illegal with the file, Brown said. Torrents can used as a way to legally share a file in an efficient and far-reaching way. As such, Brown has no plan to set in place filtering that would block torrents completely.
“There’s no way to stop the illegal activity, without stopping what is allowable,” she said.
Discussions among library staff are underway for what the library will do if AP&T doesn’t release it from liability, but Brown is hoping to find ways to prevent any filtering on the library Wi-Fi network.